Motorbiking Northern Vietnam’s Ha Giang Loop
We first heard about the Ha Giang Loop in Northern Vietnam when chatting about off the beaten path travel in Vietnam with other backpackers. It sounded fascinating and just what we were after – a multi-day adventure in the stunning surroundings of the mountains visiting different tribes along the way. There was just one niggle – you did it on a motorbike, and at the point I heard about it, I’d never driven one!
To Tour or Not to Tour?
We’d rented e-bikes in Bagan so had experience riding scooters, albeit limited! We heard there are options for the fearful such as tours, or an ‘easy rider’ option where you jump on the back of a bike instead of riding it. These are both great options, but they weren’t for us. The main tours tend to stay in huge hostels as opposed to homestays, and we wanted to drive ourselves to help capture the sense of freedom we felt in our campervan in New Zealand. So, we braved it and went alone!
Money saving tip: if you did want to join a tour, many are expensive (~$200), but if you just turn up in Ha Giang, there are groups that leave together from certain hostels. At the time of writing Bong Hostel offer a free motorbike lesson at 10, and then a group leaves at 10:30. You can also book easy rider options whilst in Ha Giang but maybe contact hostels before hand to check availability if you know your dates!
Renting Our Motorbikes
We had our free breakfast at our guesthouse in Ha Giang (Ngan Ha Guesthouse) and headed out to rent some bikes. We chose Bong just because they advertise that they have bikes only three years old (they actually gave us brand new ones – bonus!).
They gave us an idea of what to expect on the route and gave us a map and details of where we’d stop for food, accommodation and petrol, etc. We chose to do the loop over four days, but some people do three, and some do up to seven so it just depends on how much time you have. We downloaded the maps.me route before we left, and also offline Google Translate to help us out in homestays.
They also gave tips about the permit situation for foreigners to drive legally in Vietnam. We followed their advice and simply crossed the checkpoint during the lunch break (if you get stuck just keep an extra 200,000-500,000 dong handy!). I’ve heard you can easily (and cheaply) secure a permit though, we just didn’t know about it before setting off!
Motorbiking the Ha Giang Loop: Setting Off
Like I said we had very little experience on a bike so we went really slow and tried to expect the unexpected. The roads are filled with hairpin turns and you don’t know what’s around the corner. We came across lorries on our side of the road, roadworks immediately after a bend, and pigs and goats in the road. All of which is manageable if you’re in control of your bike and you’re going at a speed where you can stop if you need to. If you’re bombing it down the road that’s a whole different story!
Let beeping become your new best friend. Can’t see around a corner? BEEP. Locals use their horn differently to the UK. It no longer means ‘get out of my way’ or ‘where did you get your driver’s licence, a goody bag?’, but it means ‘I’m here, be aware’. If they go to overtake you, most of the time they will beep first. This is your cue to keep doing what you’re doing and remain predictable, they’ve seen you and are just letting you know they are coming around. It’s not your cue to get out the way, just keep doing what you’re doing.
Yen Minh Homestay
Our destination for day one was Yen Minh. We’d booked Homestay Phuc Anh. We booked in advance as we wanted to stay in smaller homestays and because we were taking it slow we knew we’d arrive at dusk so wanted somewhere to head to. We were confused as to how homestays ended up on booking.com! Previous ones we have stayed at don’t have electricity, never mind WiFi! We are used to staying on bamboo mats in bamboo houses with dinner by candlelight. This time we had a shower, and even a hairdryer (I haven’t seen one of these even in cities!).
We arrived with a warm welcome from the family and their dog wearing a dinosaur onesie. They greeted us with hot tea and a heater after the cold drive. We opted to join them for a home-cooked dinner and it was DELICIOUS! If you ask, she will even let you cook with her to learn how to prepare local food.
We sat with the host, her husband, and their two kids, and chatted over dinner. Their 14 year old son was learning English so he translated, and where he couldn’t we all used Google Translate. We never could have imagined having to translate ‘excuse me your dog has pooed in his onesie!’. Turns out this is funny in every language.
On day 2 we set out for Meo Vac. Along the way day two brought us even more stupendous views. When we drove past local kids they’d often wave, or if you stopped to take a picture of the mountains, run to catch up with you to practise their English!
We passed through many villages belonging to different tribes, and therefore locals dressed really differently to the next village along. We saw many women wearing amazing traditional outfits. It’s important to always try to ask if you’d like to take their picture (at least by gesturing), as many believe their spirit may be captured in the camera.
Hmong Houses and the Ma Pi Leng Pass
Many take a detour up to the northern border close to China, but we were short on time. Instead, we veered off the main road to visit some more villages. We saw traditional Hmong houses built from compacted earth, and a group of boys leaving school together giggling away. You might even compare the latter to a scene you might see after the school bell in England – until they picked up a dead mouse off the street and proceeded to throw it at each other!
Along the way we saw a memorial so pulled over. It was to commemorate the locals from lots of different ethnic groups who built the very road we were driving on. During the construction, fourteen people lost their lives. They call it the happiness road as it provided electricity, schools, and health care to the people living in the villages in the mountains.
Before we finished up for the day in Meo Vac we were treated to the view of Ma Pi Leng Pass. The view of it just kept getting better and better – it was stunning! We sat at the edge of the road for a while looking down into the canyon, stomachs flipping every time we thought about how deep it was and how close to the edge we were driving!
After another delicious family cooked meal (and ANOTHER hairdryer!) we were fresh for day 3. We were meant to be heading to Du Gia but changed plans midway! We’d gained confidence on the bikes and ended up making time up. Since we had time we decided to make headway with part of day 4, as we wanted to make the 3:30 bus back to Hanoi.
We ended up staying in a smaller village than the last two nights at Hong Thu homestay. The hosts were amazing; we were so glad we unexpectedly ended up here!
The family were from the Black Dao ethnic group and welcomed us into their home. It wasn’t just us who were welcomed, half the village rocked up for a birthday celebration! We had a traditional hot pot meal. I winced as I watched them plop the liver and other bits of a duck into the boiling water. I fished for the potato’s avoiding the organs, and next thing I know Joe fishes out the beak! The actual beak!
To wash all of this down the locals gave us their favourite beverage – home brewed corn wine, or ‘happy water’ as they like to call it! Each member of the gathering came over to do a shot with us and taught us a Vietnamese way of saying ‘cheers’. Many shots in we protested, and they promised ‘last one!’ or ‘just a little bit’ until the water bottle they stored it in was emptied.
Motorbiking the Ha Giang Loop: Day 4
A little bit worse for wear, we set off to see what day 4 had in store for us. We back tracked 10km and visited another village called Lung Tam. There was a weaving workshop and shop there (Lung Tam Linen Cooperative), and for those of you who’ve read my other blogs – I love a good local business and handicrafts!
The ladies showed us how they made traditional Hmong garments by weaving hemp. They dye this using different techniques such as batik (using beeswax), or using other plants or barks to naturally dye the fabric. They were so friendly and dressed us both up in traditional Hmong clothes! One lady even taught us how to play a traditional instrument.
We joined the 4C again and retraced some of our steps from the first day to get back to Ha Giang for the bus!
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